While Ankara invariably claims the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) pose a direct threat to Turkey, it has no credible pretext whatsoever to justify an offensive.
“If the planned safe zone is not established and threats to Turkey continue, an operation will be launched east of the Euphrates River to oust the YPG from the region,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned Monday, referring to Rojava’s heartland.
Turkey has already deployed additional tanks and troops to its border. Any cross-border incursion would likely start in the Arab-majority region of Gire Spi (Tal Abyad) between Rojava’s two main cantons, Kobane and Jazira.
The US Special Envoy for Syrian Engagement James Jeffrey visited Turkey on July 22-23 to once again placate a bellicose Ankara and persuade it that military action against Rojava, where the US still maintains a troop presence, is not necessary.
His visit coincided with a visit to Rojava by US Central Command (CENTCOM) chief General Kenneth McKenzie where, among other things, the proposed safe zone was discussed.
Joint work has reportedly begun between the US and Turkey on this matter.
It will likely take some time before the details and the ultimate size of the zone are agreed upon by the US, Turkey, and the Kurds themselves.
The entire initiative is unlikely to make major headway toward reaching a long-term sustainable settlement, like the Manbij Roadmap before it.
Turkey has already expressed its dissatisfaction with the arrangement. Cavusoglu said the US has not come up “with proposals that are satisfactory to us or are close to our proposals”.
Ankara’s patience, he added, “has run out”.
Ambassador Jeffrey tried to placate Turkey by acknowledging its concerns and even conceding that the political wing of the YPG, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
While this is the case, the PYD has consistently restricted its activities to Rojava and its armed wing has primarily focused on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) – the only notable exception being when the YPG tried to repel Turkey’s unilateral and aggressive invasion of Rojava’s isolated northwestern Afrin enclave in early 2018.
Even in that case when the YPG fought Turkey, it restricted itself to purely defensive action in its territories and did not use Afrin or any other part of Rojava’s territories to attack Turkey.
In a series of otherwise failed summits in Erbil and Duhok in 2012-13, the PYD did make one important commitment – that it would never attack Turkey. It has lived up to this commitment in the face of countless Turkish provocations, threats, and attacks.
Ankara’s demands for a safe zone in Rojava are unacceptable for the Kurds, and for good reason. Turkey wants to establish a 30-40 km-deep safe zone in Rojava in an area that includes all of its major cities, including Kobane and Rojava's capital Qamishli, and wants the Turkish Army, likely along with its sectarian Syrian militia proxies, to control it.
This is tantamount to a major surrender on the part of the YPG.
The US wants to get Turkey to compromise on the safe zone and facilitate a YPG withdrawal 10 km south of the border, where no permanent Turkish troop presence will be authorized.
Even that, however, would be an enormous concession for the YPG to make in the face of Turkish threats and aggression.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is an integral component, has suggested it would accept a 5 km-deep zone from where it would remove heavy weapons but retain local forces.
If Turkey does end up controlling sizable parts of Rojava, it will unlikely bring any degree of stability and security. It will, if its record to date is any indication, make the situation worse.
Ankara previously balked when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US would not let Turkey “slaughter the Kurds” of Syria. Ankara insisted it has nothing against Syria’s Kurds and is only hostile to the YPG.
However, even a cursory look at Turkey’s record in Afrin suggests Pompeo was not far off the mark. Since its invasion, Turkey has garrisoned Afrin with its Syrian militia proxies, many of which are sectarian, intentionally destroyed Afrin’s cultural heritage, looted the enclave and terrorized its Kurdish population.
This destroyed Afrin’s prior status as a uniquely stable region of Syria where people from across the country, regardless of their background, could seek protection and shelter.
More than 100,000 Kurds remain displaced, rightfully fearing Turkey’s violent proxy army if they return to their homeland.
In the meantime, Turkey has taken steps to create new demographic realities on the ground in the historically Kurdish-majority region by settling Arabs from across the country in vacated Kurdish homes and giving them Turkish-issued residency cards. This is clearly a policy against Kurds and not just the YPG, contrary to Ankara’s claims.
Turkey’s pretext for invading Afrin was partially predicated on the promptly debunked falsehood that it had faced 700 attacks from there directly targeting Turkish population centres.
In reality, Turkey had targeted the region several times with cross-border artillery fire in the preceding months and years. This means the few verified attacks emanating from Afrin were invariably the result of tit-for-tat clashes often initiated by the Turkish military, not unprovoked YPG attacks that necessitated an outright invasion and occupation.
The same is the case in Rojava’s primary regions east of the Euphrates. There, Turkey has attacked Rojava with cross-border artillery fire in a clear effort to goad the Kurds to attack Turkey so it could claim any subsequent invasion or military action was a legitimate act of self-defense.
In light of this reality, and the dire consequences that will result from any future Turkish invasion of Rojava’s heartland, the US needs to take solid steps to ensure that Ankara is deterred from any future aggression against Rojava and its people.